Women’s crisis shelters in New South Wales are in a state of upheaval. There are concerns that critical services are about to be shut down.
In inner-Sydney there will be no women’s only, specialist refuges operating in the near future. The New South Wales government’s “Going Home Staying Home” reform plan will force at least in metropolitan Sydney 20 specialist women’s shelters to close so that more services in regional areas across the state can be opened.
This redistribution of funding will endanger the lives of women and children fleeing domestic violence in parts of Sydney that have a high domestic assault rate. The areas facing reduced funding include Ashfield, Burwood, Canterbury, Leichhardt, Marrickville, central Sydney, the Eastern suburbs and the North Shore.
Specialist women’s refuges in some regional areas of New South Wales will also face closure. Bourke, Wilcannia and Walgett — which have the highest domestic violence rates in the state — are also affected.
These specialist women’s refuges cater for women whose lives are at risk from their partners. Many flee with their children, taking nothing with them. The specialist women’s shelters provide clothing, furniture and accommodation as well as health, legal, financial and social services for traumatised women and children.
There are also other crucial services set to be axed. They include the young people’s refuge in Leichhardt and the Community Restorative Centre’s women’s program which provides a wide range of services to vulnerable people.
The NSW government insists the overall funding was not significantly reduced, but the Department of Family and Community Services’ “Going Home, Staying Home” plan will reduce the number of places for abused women in the inner Sydney area by as much as 75%.
The NSW government has called for tenders from service providers for the homeless in a massive overhaul of funding arrangements. This will allow religious organisations like the Salvation Army to bid.
Religious groups are not equipped to provide women-only refuges with appropriate, professional counselling and support services and could appoint male staff to run the refuges. Battered women escaping abusive relationships with nowhere else to go are likely to be further traumatised by the presence of men in these centres, particularly in cases where they and their children have been sexually abused.
One of the most concerning issues with the tender process is that it does not designate speciality, replacing women-only providers with generic or “mixed” services.
Severely traumatised women and children are unlikely to access generic refuges that cannot meet their specific needs. Consequently, these women will remain in violent situations. In many cases, their lives are at risk.
The statistics for domestic violence in Australia are horrifying. The Australian Institute of Criminology estimates up to 36% of all homicides occur in domestic situations and 73% of those homicides involve women killed by their male partners.
At least one woman is murdered every week in Australia due to domestic violence. In NSW last year, 24 women died in domestic incidents. One in three Australian women suffer brutal, physical assault and up to one in five women are subjected to sexual attacks. Nevertheless, domestic and sexual violence is not specific to socio-economic status, nor is it governed by religion, race or culture.
There is little doubt that, in a situation where specialist services are already inadequate and under-funded, the reforms will mean that the appalling statistics on violence against women will rise.
Although the Department of Family and Community services denies that the reforms represent cuts to overall funding, which stands at about $60 million a year, it is clear that funding should be expanded to cater for Sydney and regional areas.
The elimination of vital, specialist services in areas where the existing refuges are stretched beyond capacity is an irrational response by a government committed to reducing social services across the board.
The first women’s refuge in Australia was opened in 1974 in Sydney’s inner west by feminist women at a time when domestic abuse of women and children was not regarded by the police, clergy or government to be within the realm of criminal behaviour.
Today, there are more than 300 specialist women’s refuges around Australia funded by state and federal governments. Now, under the current reform program in NSW, women and their children will be forced to remain in violent relationships to the detriment of their physical, emotional and psychological wellbeing.